Books, PDFs and Online Services

black tablet computer behind books

Back in the early days of the hobby tabletop roleplaying games came in the form of books or small booklets, sometimes as part of a boxed set. With the advent of the internet there came another way of distributing tabletop RPG material and pretty quickly the Portable Document Format (PDF) became the norm. And even though it’s often uncomfortable to read PDFs in a portrait format on a screen which is in a landscape format, the vast majority of PDF roleplaying game products pretty much look like their book counterparts. This makes it easier for the customer to print them themselves and it also allows the publisher to use the print layout as a basis for the digital release. And of course there are countless products which are only available digitally usually in a PDF format as well.

Curiously when it comes to reading roleplaying games on a screen other formats would make much more sense. But often these alternatives comes with other problems. The artwork and layout of a roleplaying game product are an important aspect as much as the text itself, sometimes even more when it comes to first impressions and purchase decisions. The various ebook formats could be a viable alternative, but I’ve only seen very few publishers go down that route and usually they offer regular PDFs as well. The drawback of the ebook formats like EPUB or MOBI is that they work great for text on all screen sizes, formats and devices but you can’t have fancy layouts and artworks. These formats are also not a good choice if you want your customers to allow to print stuff.

So aside from the traditional printed books, PDFs have become the de-facto standard in the roleplaying game industry. But recently there has been another development. Some publishers have offered their products as a part of a web-based service. Websites can be as fancy as print products nowadays, but they are much more easy to read on a screen, can be dynamically adjusted to many screen sizes and can even add features like a dice roller, character creation tools, or even a fully fledged virtual tabletops. But (and this is a big but with a capital B) printing is usually not a viable option and you can’t keep a backup of these online services on your device. They are services after all. You are totally at the whim of the publisher. If they decide to shut down the service, you probably can’t play anymore. If they decide to change the mechanics of the game, the older version which you might have preferred, is gone. These services also often come with a monthly recurring fee. The good old times, where you just needed a book, a couple of dice, pencils and papers, are gone. And if the publisher pulls the plug or closes its doors, your beloved game is not accessible anymore. Sure, that happens with online video games all the time, but it’s not something we TTRPG fans are used to.

Why do I bring this issue up now? It’s because I think we are seeing the first hints at a new trend in our hobby. During the pandemic many people switched from playing at a table to online play. This of course made VTTs much more popular. When playing using a VTT having game rules in a easily read format for a computer or mobile device screen is important. So it makes sense for the VTT service to offer rules and setting material as part of their platform. This has going on for quite some time now. Roll20, Fantasy Grounds and others have partnered with RPG publishers for years at this point. D&D Beyond has recently been purchased by Wizards of the Coast and they’ll also release their own VTT in the future. Roll20 has recently partnered with OneBookShelf (the company behind DriveThruRPG). This is not necessarily a bad thing, but there’s the risk that publishers will follow WotC’s model and not release PDFs anymore. In the long run we might even see an end of printed TTRPG book.

Is it all doom and gloom at this point? Of course not. At this point most TTRPGs are available in PDF format, in print, or both. Many publishers even throw in a PDF for free if you buy a hardcopy of the rules. But some of the major players in the industry (like Hasbro’s WotC) are already looking for ways to control their products more tighly (see the recent OGL kerfuffle for a good example) and prevent them from being “undermonetized”. Switching from a traditional model with printed books and PDFs to online services helps with that.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Am I onto something here or are my fears totally unfounded? Please share your thoughts below.